Superbugs have been around for years, but a new report from the Centers for Disease Control, apparently sounding the alarm, warns these drug-resistant bacteria are even scarier than ever.
Dr. Wes C. Van Voorhis, professor of allergy and infectious disease at the University of Washington, tells KIRO Radio's Tom and Curly Show that he thinks the CDC is speaking up now due to the sheer the magnitude of the problem.
"We, as physicians working in the hospitals such as [University of Washington Medical Center] and Harborview, have been seeing this for a long time and have been ringing the bells that we are running out of antibiotics to be able to effectively treat our patients."
Van Voorhis says drug companies have not been producing new antibiotics at the rate they should have been.
"They're stepping up the pace now, but we really need more antibiotics."
Health care providers are pulling out all the stops to try to fight the antibiotic-resistant infections, but Van Voorhis says there are just some infections that can't be fought with current antibiotic treatments.
"We see bacteria now in the hospitals fairly routinely that we don't have a single antibiotic left," says Van Voorhis. "The bad bugs seem to be acquiring these antibiotic resistance genes, these things that allow them to proliferate even in the face of the antibiotics."
"We're trying all kinds of things. We're bringing back antibiotics that haven't been used for 50 years because they were thought to be too toxic. We're doing all kinds of combinations of the antibiotics that are already licensed to try and bring patients back from the brink."
If someone is infected with one of these antibiotic-resistant bugs, Van Voorhis says the consequences can be severe.
"If the antibiotics aren't working anymore, it can lead to loss of limb and life," says Van Voorhis. "Say you have a car crash, and your leg is broken, and the skin is broken. If they would enter from another patient into your leg, it might just cause an amputation because you couldn't control the infection."
The antibiotic-resistant bacteria transfer from person to person, and hospital to hospital indiscriminately, says Van Voorhis.
To put a stop to the growth of these antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Van Voorhis says we have to attack the problem on several fronts.
Firstly, as patients, Van Voorhis says don't be afraid to question your doctor when they prescribe antibiotics.
"When you get a cold or whatever and your doctor says 'I think you might need an antibiotic,' question the doctor and say 'do you really think I need that or is this just a virus.'"
He also suggests we need to rethink the practice of using antibiotics in meat production.
"We should pressure Congress to stop using antibiotics in animals for just growth promotion. I think we can all afford to pay a few more cents for our food to have it antibiotic free so it doesn't endanger our health," says Van Voorhis.
Containing the bugs within hospitals is also key, Van Voorhis says. He says hospitals treat patients identified to be carrying a superbug in a manner meant to block the spreading of the bug to other patients around the hospital. This, he says, has been very effective.
The CDC also says keeping up with production of new antibiotics is crucial.
"Because antibiotic resistance occurs as part of a natural process in which bacteria evolve, we will always need new antibiotics to keep up with resistant bacteria as well as new diagnostic tests to track the development of resistance."
Without means to effectively treat infections, the advantages provided by medical advances such as joint replacements, organ transplants and cancer treatments will all be threatened, according to the CDC.
"If the ability to effectively treat those infections is lost, the ability to safely offer people many of the life-saving and life-improving modern medical advances will be lost with it."